The Reluctant Royals series has been a source of constant delight for me in the past year, and this latest addition, A Prince on Paper, is no different. Alyssa Cole really knows how to skillfully subvert the tropes and established norms of the Romance genre to tell a tale that is realistic and fanciful at the same time. From the made-up kingdoms and made-up languages to real emotions, heartbreak and happiness, Cole spins an entertaining story that is worth reading again and again.
Nya Jerami is the much-maligned daughter of a criminal, who is imprisoned for poisoning Naledi, the future princess of Thesolo, a small country in Africa. After her father’s arrest, Nya fled to NYC in defiance to lead a life on her own terms. Now she is very reluctantly journeying to Thesolo for Ledi’s wedding to Prince Thabiso, because as Ledi’s cousin, she is part of the wedding party.
Under the guise of being concerned for her and guilting her over the death of her mother in childbirth, Nya’s father has always talked down to her and controlled her. With soft insinuating words, he has made her feel continuously unwell and weak and depressed — according to him, she cannot manage too much work, stress is dangerous to her health, she really prefers to be alone at home, her dreams need to be smaller.
Living in NYC felt like she’d gotten a new lease on life. Free from oppression, she was able to discover who she was and what she liked to do. So the return to Thesolo has her heart sinking to her shoes and depressing her spirits. She feels that once within the borders of the kingdom, even though he is in prison, her father’s chains of influence will bind her there forever.
Johan Maximillian von Braustein is the stepson of the king of Liechtienbourg, a European Principality, and a playboy prince known for his attractive looks, jet-setting parties, fancy cars and a revolving door of supermodels.
Little-known to the outside world is that after the death of their mother, seventeen-year-old Johan developed an outsized and outrageous reputation to draw attention away from his seven-year-old sensitive brother, so he could grow up out of the spotlight. Despite the intervening ten years, Johan has continued to be devastated from the loss of his beloved mother and has vowed never to love again. Loving hurts. Loss hurts even more. Better to lead a superficial life than to make yourself vulnerable.
What is interesting in this book is what shy Nya and extrovert Johan have in common – if unguarded, their emotions are in peril of being hurt. Their ways of hiding this are polar opposites — she withdraws into her shell hiding from publicity and only confides in her closest friends, whereas he lives as outsized life where his socialite personality is exposed to the tabloid press.
It was a delight to see how they get to know each other better and open up to each other. While each of them is unwillingly vulnerable to the other, they instinctively understand the other’s fears and provide unconditional emotional succor. That they’re susceptible to the other is obvious to them, but how they let go of the tight reins of control they have over their hearts and allow the other person to see the real person is superbly shown.
The beauty of Cole’s writing is that it is pitch perfect in knowing when to ratchet up the tension and when to dial it back down, to always be reaching for that flawless emotional connection between them, and yet when to rend it asunder, only to seamlessly repair it. I have always admired Cole’s storytelling skill, and this book is a great example of it.
In order to better understand the setting of the kingdom of Thesolo and the relationship between Ledi and Thabiso, it is worth reading A Princess in Theory — it made my Best Books of 2018 list. However, I urge you to read all the books in the Reluctant Royals series — they are so good — A Princess in Theory; A Duke in Disguise; Once Ghosted, Twice Shy; and Can’t Escape Love (review here).